“I’m gonna keep you alive, I promise!” says Mai Armstrong, member of Newtown Creek Alliance.
It’s Saturday morning – a scorcher, by the way – and a group of 31 culture enthusiasts from all over New York have assembled by St Anthony’s Church for a free two-hour guided walk of Newtown Creek (and environs) as part of Jane’s Walk NYC. One woman, an ex-resident, has brought her two daughters from Manhattan to check out the old ‘hood. It’s a beautiful day, and we bristle with anticipation.
Mitch Waxman, best known to locals as historian for the Newtown Creek Alliance, will be leader. Travelling up West Street and Manhattan before lingering around Newtown Creek, we’ll hop over the Pulaski Bridge to finish at Long Island City. Given the local heavy goods traffic we all know and love, the tour is punctuated by Mai’s sporadic cries of “Truck!”. Who knew walking was such an extreme sport?
Waxman, in black hoodie, shades, and an NCA baseball cap, is an animated host. His tour-guide voice is booming, his gestures demonstrative.
He begins with a basic history of the neighbourhood. “Grenpoint” was part of the Dutch colonial settlement of the 1600s, before the English took over and renamed it with the extra “e.” Perhaps that’s a familiar fact, but the joy is in Waxman’s detailed commentary. We take a close look, for example, the elegant houses of Milton Street, complete with the coal hatches that would have stored fuel for the fires of 19th century factory managers; they demonstrate the enormous wealth of a burgeoning community whose riches back then stemmed from shipbuilding and, later, oil.
“By the 1850s, 10% of the wealth of the entire United States was found between Williamsburg and Newtown Creek,” says Waxman. “So this was the original home of industry in the United States of America.”
From the way in which the local roads got their names (originally Avenues A, B, C but re-styled after five powerful local families) to the recounting of an intense fire, which started at the site of the former Continental Iron Works at West Street, Waxman’s tour gives a florid impression of how high levels of production built a town as diverse as it was plentiful.
But, despite Mai’s efforts to keep us all out of harm’s way, Waxman’s commentary also weaves in a detailed analysis of the important question any Greenpointer should ask: is this community safe, environmentally speaking?
Industry, as we all now know, has a dark side. Although cheerful in demeanour, Waxman’s superbly interwoven narrative of the infamous legacy of pollution that has gripped the community for the last century is no laughing matter.
Straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were, we hear from Laura Hofmann, board member of the Newtown Creek Alliance and founder of the Barge Park Pals, who stands outside the former PVC factory and tells the crowd that her parents both died from brain diseases; she and her children suffer debilitating autoimmune disorders and even her dog died from encephalopathy. She laments the lack of government action over meaningful studies into a suspected link between heavy traffic, sewer works, multiple dangerous plumes, the PVC factory’s phthalates, and serious illnesses like brain cancer.
Slightly more sombre now, we move on to the North Brooklyn Boat Club –“Visit the bathroom!” says Waxman; “It’s worth it just to say you went to a composting toilet today”)– where levels of bacteria in the “antifreeze-green” water of the Creek are tested.
Willis Elkins explains, “It’s kind of cool – it’s a citizen science project. We did 20 tests last summer and about a third of the time, the water off our dock was actually swimmable. As you get further into the creek, however, the results get a lot worse.”
After hearing some words from Erik Baard of the HarborLAB on the north side of Newtown Creek, we stop at the Long Island City Community Boathouse. The ensuing talk lays bare the intricate environmental problems faced by the residents not only of Greenpoint but of Queen’s, too (and their interconnectedness). However, it’s also a celebration of the stories and spirit of community activists – those who triumphed over liberating the waterfront via the Transmitter Park project and the work of HarborLAB, bringing us steps closer to re-green-ifying the Newtown Creek waterfront.
As the walk winds to a close at the Gantry Plaza State Park, where Waxman points out the recycled wood benches (they remain unpainted, so that they can be recycled again in the future), I notice that I have a blistering red streak of sunburn; I’ve been so sucked into Mitch’s historical tales that I’ve forgotten sunblock!
You, too, can catch a free tour with Mitch Waxman on May 31st as part of the NCA’s Plank Road “turf tour” (ticketing opens May 14th). You can also take the “surf tour” with the North Brooklyn Boat Club the same day.
Mitch Waxman also has a blog with alternate tour dates.